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What It's Like to See Blackface on Halloween as a Woman of Colour

10/27/2014 01:03 EDT | Updated 12/26/2014 05:59 EST
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For my first Halloween as a legal, 19-year-old university student back in 2011, I decided it was as good a time as any to attempt the adult world of Halloween partying. I chose an outfit, met up with two of my closest friends, and hit the busy streets of London, Ontario.

A word about London: as many might tell you, not only is it a "student city," but it relatively known as a "white" city. And by that I mean that racism, discrimination, and inappropriate comments from ignoramuses are a typical day well spent.

In our second year, my friends and I -- one a Canadian-born Sri Lankan -- and the other, a Jamaican-born Canadian, had braved our first year together in our dormitory as the only "coloured" people in the entire unit, and pretty much the entire residence. We were used to people introducing themselves by disclaiming that they "loved black people" and "had black friends." It is no surprise that black people were a token novelty in London, nor that we stuck together for the duration of our undergrad. Coming from Toronto, it was hard for us to swallow.

After waiting in line for a few hours to get into Jack's, a sleazy but very popular hole-in-the-wall, we trudged in our costumes to the rear bar to warm ourselves up with shots.

That's when we encountered blackface.

Minutes after downing shots, I saw the black paint around white eyes drifting towards us -- two guys and one girl -- through the crowd.

Horrified, I tried to reason with myself. No, people wouldn't actually do that, would they? Maybe they smashed their faces into devil's food cake with chocolate icing. Maybe they were trying to dress up as those "Happy Poo" shit jump toys.

Or maybe not.

They stopped directly in front of us. Three for three.

These three, blonde, 20-somethings were dressed as cotton pickers and had painted their faces in the most offensive, unrealistic mud black I've ever seen. Their blue irises bore into ours, uncovered by half an inch of white skin where they carefully made sure not to get black paint in their eyes. It invoked a kind of nightmarish fear.

They said absolutely nothing, only smiled, mouth closed.

My Jamaican friend instantly blew his drink out, disappearing to snicker in semi-privacy. They turned for a brief moment to witness him running away, then turned all their attention to me.

I didn't find it funny.

"What the fuck?" I said. I was waiting for an answer. They just looked at me, unblinking, still smiling.

I repeated myself. No answer. Just clown smiles.

I was starting to get angry. Here before me, like never in my life, were three white people, faces straight out of Birth of a Nation, targeting us, the non-white people in the bar. Having the audacity to smile and not answer me.

"Can't you talk? What the hell is your problem?" I yelled into their stupid, smiling faces. Still no answer.

"You think this is funny? Where the hell do you get off standing in front of me? Say something!" I started screaming. My laughing friend, sensing my anger, came back, only then realizing how bad this situation was.

"Talk, say something! Clearly you have something you wanna say to me!" No answer. I wanted to punch the smug grins off their face. I was sick to my stomach. I was humiliated. I wanted to cry. I wanted to laugh. A million different emotions were flying through my mind.

Seconds later, still smiling, they uniformly turned their black, painted faces, and slowly headed back into the crowd.

They confronted another group of black students. Then a group of South Asian students. Their expressions first were baffled, followed by pained.

While my friends weren't as upset as I was (maybe it was shock, maybe it was to be expected), my night was ruined. I had so many questions to ask. Why would people do this? It's one mistake to dress up as blackface, a whole other one to approach black people in a white supremacist costume. Why didn't they speak? What did that mean? Did they really think it was funny? And better yet, why were they allowed them to be let in?

Did our safety -- our dignity -- mean so little to the people here?

It did, as I found out over the years of living in the city. This was a city where, amongst neo-Nazi groups, in 1882, the KKK burned down the house of a black man named Harrison. In 1925, 1,000 members of that same group hosted a ceremony in London to initiate 100 new recruits into their organization, and in March 2012, where a white pride protest was held, although it was quickly shut down by anti-racist groups.

In my last year of study, a young black girl was mocked then kicked off a bus by the driver, whose excuse was that she herself was "threatening," when no witness could confirm his statement. Just this month, a lynched dummy was hung in a tree as a Halloween decoration. The owners said it was "just for fun" and shouldn't be taken so seriously.

What is serious is how aware youth are of racist history, and instead of trying to fight it, are reproducing it.

What is spooky is that somewhere, among parents, friends, school, or media outlets, this reproduced history is encouraged and goes unpunished for children and (young) adults.

What is scary, given the socio-racial history of many cities is that should we, as non-white people, dress up for Halloween as "white face," the consequences would be much more serious, and potentially life-threatening.

Why, in 2014, is blackface a chosen costume? Why are we accepting the insincere apologies of people and celebrities who choose to wear blackface, when we all know, regardless of knowledge levels or not, that painting one's face black has serious implications?

I've come to realize what the silence meant. They could have spoken, and as a result of failing to "talk black," would have ruined the effect of their "costume." However, saying nothing but staring into my face, making me question it, forced me to see myself in that costume; my racialized, cotton-picking, black-faced self. The markers of my "inferiority" that I had sadly internalized. That white people felt entitled to exteriorize.

By standing there, they challenged me to make the connection -- to acknowledge the power imbalance -- the privilege imbalance. They could go home, wash off the paint, and wake up the next morning only remembering how "rad" their night was. When I went home, there was nothing to wash off but my makeup, because the distress they left me with couldn't be removed with soap.

It isn't hard to understand why painting your face black would be a serious problem. It also doesn't take more than a little common sense or a simple Google search to connect to the dots. So a tip for blackfacers, Ray Rices, and Mike Browns this Halloween: No one is laughing at how smart your costume choice is; they're laughing at what a racist idiot you are.

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